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Dancing on the Double Ice – Photographs from the Czech Underground

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Nearly a quarter of a century after the Velvet Revolution, Prague publishing house KANT Books releases a voluminous tome brimmed with photographs of the Czech underground in the late sixties and early seventies. Publisher Karel Kerlický knows about the international significance Czech art has gained in the meantime, so he decided to edit the book in English as well as in Czech.

Jan Ságl, today well known photographer, was in his early years a vivid member of Czech underground and avant-garde scene. Together with his wife Zorka Ságlová he accompanied music groups like The Primitives Group, DG 307 and most of all The Plastic People of Universe. Zorka, one of Czechoslovakia’s most eminent avant-garde artists, designed stages, costumes, posters and the Plastic People’s band logo. She also was the sister of Ivan Jirous, a.k.a. Magor, kind of manager for the Plastic People and part time lyricist for their songs. It is mainly Zorka to take credit for whole artistic concepts that let the Plastic People do more than just music. She took part in the conceiving of happenings like Bird Feast and let the musicians be part of her own works like the Throwing Balls into Bořín Pond.

Jan Ságl documented almost everything with his camera. He was more than a witness, he also has helped on the scene, took pictures later used as album covers. He showed the musicians and he showed their audience. And when one day the snitches of Czechoslovakia’s secret police by chance could lay their hands on some of these photos, he knew he had to hide the rest. By accident Jan, Zorka and their daughter Alena returned home one day early from their weekend cottage. Time enough for their friends Věra Jirousová – Magor’s wife and a renowned art theorist – and Jiří Nemec (the philosopher not the soccer player) to warn them. Jan brought most of his photos to unsuspicious friends who hid them thoroughly. Another friend, Pavel Vašíček, received a smaller amount. He found the perfect hiding place right under his floor. Unfortunately it was so perfect that several years later he flooded that very floor with concrete. These pictures are lost. But from the rest Ságl made a book that looks for the likes of it.

On more than 500 pages Jan Ságl collected in a year’s work wonderful pictures from his recovered treasure. We can see him, Zorka, Magor and Věra as young couples. Pictures like these most of us know from their private albums. The people smile, look somehow happy-go-lucky and radiate a lot of optimism. It is the year 1966 the book starts with. Prague Spring is on its way and it seems as if there would be more than just a glimpse of freedom.

Ságl shows the musicians in private, during rehearsals and on stage. He shows them on official occasions and he took photos when they only could play hidden places anymore. Wonderful portraits of the musicians, Zorka, Magor and lot of others are mixed under the more documenting photos. So the book is far from being a history book. But in a way it is. You see Věra doing body-art on the Plastic People. You see Zorka’s land-art projects. You see people dancing on the concerts, happy and high – probably without drugs. And you see a lot of bucolic scenes. The musicians, like fauns promenading through the woods, draped on the rocks of a long lost park in Valeč near Karlovy Vary.

But Ságl’s pictures also show everyday life. Ságl seemed to be anywhere at anytime. You see the people eating, sleeping and drinking. You see them in the shower and having a barbecue. Nearly everything is documented. And for completion you see a lot of photographs from the Plastic People’s bassplayer Mejla’s wedding or you learn about a funeral for two friends.

Everything looks easygoing. But actually behind nearly every picture one has to imagine secret police. Wherever these friends from underground and avant-garde met – someone was already there to take notes. Sometimes professionals, sometimes the neighbours. You never knew. You also never knew how far you could go. This is what the title of the book means. Ságl took an experience from his childhood when the kids went on ice that already has dewed and was frozen over. There were two layers of ice and one wrong movement could make you break through. Same with politics. Prague Spring brought thaw, but how much could you trust the political weather in the years after?

Ságl’s book ends in the year 1976 with Magor’s wedding. That year when Jan had to hide his photos. A year later a police raid ended a concert of The Plastic People, battered and arrested a lot of the attendants and did so with the band members. This was finally the flash point for the group headed by Václav Havel to publish the Charter 77.

Not only the pictures tell about that time. Jan Ságl himself, interviewed by Petr Volf, gives a lot of information, not retaining his opinion, but with an affectionate look on what was going on those times.
Dancing on the Double Ice is a document of contemporary Czech art, the development it took and outstanding quality it had at that time, with no need to hide from international art at the same time. John Cale, co-founder of the legendary Velvet Underground gives a dedication on the first page of the book. What proof do you need more for the importance of Czech underground and avant-garde music?

Some of the pictures were selected by Ságl for an exhibition in Louny, some 40 kilometres northwest of Prague. The municipal Galerie Benedikta Rejta opened on April 6th for the presentation of a vast variety of the regained photos. Ságl and the gallery’s director Alica Štefančiková did a great job. The high quality of the prints makes it a pleasure to look at. The opening night became more and more like one of these commune-like meetings you see on the pictures, when guests who discovered themselves on the photographs as young people or even kids, posed to be photographed beside these pictures. There was a quite peaceful atmosphere around and the band Dekadentfabrik – not quite as old as the Plastic People but of the same spirit – played, accompanied by some films Jan Ságl had made. When finally Jiří Števich, Plastic People’s former guitarist surprisingly joined Dekadentfabrik, unrest spread in the gallery and everyone went to see that man, who hadn’t touched a guitar for ten years. After some warm-up riffs he was back again and joined the music as if it was still the most daily thing for him. Jan Ságl, eyes always open, noticed it and did with a smile what he had done some 40 years ago: he photographed musicians searching for the right tone in their time.

Jan Ságl: Tanec na dvojitém ledě / Dancing on the Double Ice. KANT books, Prague 2013. 540 pages. 699 Kč.
Exhibition: Tanec na dvojitém ledě. Muzeum moderního umění. Galerie Benedikta Rejta. Pivovarska 29-34. 440 01 Louny. Open: Tue. – Sun. 10.00-18.00.

Visit Prague Monitor’s photo gallery for more photos from the exhibit.

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